My earliest memories are of books.
My mother was a complicated woman and a reader. She could become lost in a book for hours. She read books like my father smoked Camels, closing one and opening another.
She took time to read to her children as well, imparting a gift as rich as any present. I can remember sitting in her lap while she read to us. I don’t recall the books themselves, except The Bible Story, but I can close my eyes and smell the paper, hear the rustle of the pages turned, the quiet room a backdrop to her voice.
Our homes weren’t often quiet. Maybe that was an extra treasure from reading time.
I grew up in a military family first and a broken one later. Movement was the norm and making new friends in the middle of school years was difficult. I learned to carry my friends with me from base to town, school to school. Tom Swift was a good friend for a time, and kindled a life-long fascination with science. Frank and Joe Hardy and The Hardy Boy’s Mysteries came along only slightly later, their affluent lives a welcome respite from our family’s struggles, their cases compelling mysteries I yearned to unravel.
I wrote my own first tale in the seventh grade. Fortunately, those words are lost, but I remember the cover drawing I made: flying saucers descending to a lunar surface. (See, I told you it’s fortunate the words are gone.)
Eventually, I outgrew the Hardy Boys and grew through Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy and into the racy worlds of John Norman’s Gor series and Don Pendleton’s Executioner, who sought vengeance for his mob-murdered family. I often read these on the long drives I took with my third stepfather, as we peddled fruits and vegetables throughout the south, from the Carolinas to Florida.
As a teen, I finally found the deeper pleasures of the great novelists, like Solzhenitsin, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. We were living in Central Florida with no air conditioning, when, on a humid summer day, I sprawled across my bed to read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denosovich, Alexander Solzhenitsin’s novel about his incarceration in a Siberian gulag. It wasn’t long before I forgot the heat, burrowing under the covers to escape a cold unheard of in the Sunshine State.
After a couple hours of volleyball this morning, squeezed in despite a drizzle that turned into a pour, I came home and opened The Kills, by Richard House. As his hero, Stephen Sutler struggled, injured from a bomb blast, across the Iraqi desert under a blistering sun, I forgot the cold and the rain.
To be cold on a summer day and warm on a rainy January one is the true power of language. The skill of the accomplished author is that he or she can show us new worlds, let us see through the eyes of people we will never meet, immerse ourselves in cultures alien to our own. When I think of my own mortality, I worry that there will be too many great books I’ve left unread.
When someone tells me they do not read, I wonder at the joy they’ve missed. For children today, I only hope that, like my mother, your parents read to you, imparting the gift mine gave to me.